by LAURA HAYES
A love triangle, a “magic potion” designed to make people fall in love, and a mysterious peddler — these are pieces of Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti’s opera “L’elisir d’amore” or “The Elixir of Love.”
On Thursday morning, Goodview Elementary students gathered in the gym to watch Opera for the Young’s (OFTY) production of “The Elixir of Love.” However, instead of being set in Basque Country between France and Spain, the opera is set in the Wild West where poor Jimmy Reno buys a “magic potion” that is secretly root beer to get the wealthy Miss Addy to fall in love with him. The opera singers were joined onstage by 16 Goodview fourth graders.
“I thought it was great. They were so good with preparing the kids,” said Goodview’s music teacher Betsy Neil.
Neil first heard about OFTY when she was teaching at a charter school in La Crosse. The district would bring the company to perform at all of the elementary schools every other year. “I was so impressed by the quality of the performers and singers and the appropriateness of the show for the age level and that it includes some of the students as part of the show,” Neil said. This year, Goodview’s PTA decided to sponsor OFTY’s trip to Goodview.
OFTY wanted 16 students to participate in the show as townspeople. Two of the students were given speaking roles as a soldier and a justice of peace to wed Miss Addy to Sergeant Bill Corey, who is set on marrying Addy until Jimmy professes his love at the last minute. Neil decided to offer the opportunity for any interested fourth graders. For a month, the students would practice their lines and the songs with Neil. That morning, the "Elixir of Love" cast members taught the students the dances and additional responses. Two of the students even dance with Jimmy Reno, Neil said.
Established in 1970, OFTY is based in Madison and travels to elementary schools within an eight-hour radius. Every year, OFTY hosts annual opera tours in the fall and spring. OFTY pianist Steve Radtke said that what separated OFTY’s performances from other organizations is that members worked to incorporate students into the performance. OFTY’s goal is to expose students to the arts in general.
Some students may never have a chance to see opera, Neil said. “Opera is one of the richest art forms because all of the arts contribute to an opera,” she added. Students are exposed to visual art through the backdrops, vocal performance through the singers, instrumental performance through a pianist like Radtke or pit orchestras, and costumes.
“So many kids only ever get exposed to pop music and aren’t even aware of some of these art forms that are so old. They’ve lasted so long because they’re fantastic,” she said. Neil remembered listening to opera singers at community concerts when she was growing up in Winona.
However, the fourth graders weren’t the only students to learn about opera. Neil said that she taught students about opera in all of her music classes — from the different vocal parts to how to be a good audience member. In the future, Neil hopes that OTFY returns to Winona Area Public Schools and visits additional elementary schools. “I want all of the children to see it,” she said.